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‘The prom of IndyCar': Why the Music City GP highlights Nashville motorsports renaissance

NASHVILLE – The Music City Grand Prix barely was taking shape, but the laps near Nissan Stadium already had begun -- with a boisterous nightly welcoming bash befitting its host city.

Revelers were drawn by three consecutive weeks of overnight work (8 p.m. to 5 a.m. in a town whose nightlife rarely stops) to erect 2.17 miles of barriers, fencing and curbing. Dozens of roofless tour buses, often packed with the ubiquitous Nashville bachelorette parties that often have music blaring and beverages flowing, regularly drove past the track to check out the latest beehive of activity in the bustling city.

“They came past the stadium side of the course every night,” Tony Cotman, who has overseen track design and construction, told NBC Sports with a chuckle. “Any event is only going to be successful if it’s in the right city and has the city’s support, and I think both of those boxes are checked here. I haven’t had much time to enjoy the nightlife, but oh my gosh, it is out of control. We don’t work on Friday or Saturday because even though we’re working overnight, there’s so much traffic, they won’t let us close the streets.”

Those streets finally will close today as the curtain rises on three days of racing that track with IndyCar’s upward trajectory this season – and could chart the course for an even brighter future.

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Based on the groundswell of enthusiasm, Nashville already is making a bid to become the second-biggest race on the IndyCar schedule after the Indy 500. It’s an unofficial title that has been held for decades by the Long Beach Grand Prix, the crown jewel of American street circuits with its Formula One lineage and Monaco-esque atmosphere.

What Nashville might lack in history, it already has in big-event acumen and atmosphere that has electrified Country Music Awards shows, the 2019 NFL Draft and the 2017 Stanley Cup that had a few hundred thousand fans jamming its vibrant and lively avenues.

And now, Nashville will welcome a racing series that will line up its largest field outside the Indy 500 since 2013 in another indicator of the palpable buzz from drivers, sponsors and teams about IndyCar’s first new street race in a decade (since Baltimore in 2011) -- and the first to incorporate a 1,600-foot bridge with a breathtaking view of the skyline.

“This could be the prom of IndyCar,” Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe told NBC Sports. “This could be the party weekend of the year. The city itself is a ton of fun, and they know how to throw big events and throw a party atmosphere. Bring the street race into the heart of city, and it’s a recipe for success. We’ve seen it work in Long Beach, Toronto, St. Pete. These street races are always a hit. And this town knows how to do it.”

That’s always been true for the home of the Grand Ole Opry and “Nashvegas,” the glittering stretch of neon-laden honky-tonks lining Lower Broadway downtown that broadcast a blaring cacophony of beer- and bourbon-drenched fun.

But what’s been notable is how seemingly overnight, Nashville has reclaimed a long-dormant crown as a motorsports mecca. Despite strong ties to car culture and the automobile industry, the city somehow remained a sleeping giant of auto racing until suddenly in the summer of 2021.

This weekend’s Music Grand Prix will mark the third time in eight weeks that a nationally televised race will originate in the Nashville region.

And just like the Cup Series race at Nashville Superspeedway (which brought 40,000 for the region’s first race in NASCAR’s premier series since 1984) and the SRX finale at the Nashville Fairgrounds (which had roughly 15,000 for its largest crowd in more than 40 years), Music City Grand Prix organizers are expecting a capacity crowd of 60,000 to line the streets. That will accentuate recent proclamations by NASCAR champion Chase Elliott and others that Nashville has become the hottest destination in racing.

“Everybody is going to Nashville, focusing on Nashville and honing in on Nashville as a place to be,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think it’s a long time coming to be honest with you. It should have happened years and years ago.

“Nashville is a great fit. The town does have a lot of energy.”

Two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden has witnessed it since being born and raised in nearby Hendersonville 30 years ago. But it “started ramping up aggressively” in the last five years.

“It’s always had entertainment with country music, but it just exploded to a whole new level,” said the Team Penske star, who moved home with his wife, Ashley, a couple of years ago. “It’s not just music now. It’s the film industry. It’s the sports industry. Everything is trying to explode in Nashville. You get that whole big city vibe.”

Superstar Racing Experience - Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - JULY 17: A general view of the grand stand during the Camping World Superstar Racing Experience event at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway on July 17, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Dylan Buell/SRX via Getty Images)

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Since his father relocated to Nashville last year, 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi has discovered “an awesome city.

“It’s like the L.A. of the South,” Rossi told NBC Sports. “And with that, you look at Long Beach, flagship race, super high energy, people stoked to be there. I think Nashville will be the exact same if not better. Music side of it, quite a young town. Awesome to add a race to the calendar but also add a street race in a city as cool as Nashville.”

Nashville’s hospitable and warm reception has stretched into other sports as the Tennessee Titans’ Ryan Tannehill will be attending Sunday. Tannehill is a longtime friend of Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, who views the star quarterback’s presence as another sign that the Music City Grand Prix “is hot. Everybody wants to go to Nashville. Hopefully this is one of those events that becomes a cornerstone of our schedule for years to come. It’s a tremendous opportunity for the sport.”

In attending the SRX race, Newgarden felt the community soaking up its motorsports renaissance.

“I think it’s almost fitting we’re leaving the Music City Grand Prix for last,” he said. “It is the finale. It is the cherry on top if you will of motorsports coming back to Nashville. It’s just different than any of those other events. I always tell people if you want to see a race and you’ve never been, if you’re not a fan of motorsports necessarily, go to an IndyCar street course race.

“It is the perfect environment to lure people in to IndyCar action. The fact that it’s the finale of this swing of motorsports in Nashville I think is very fitting.”

The Music City Grand Prix finally was brought together over the past two years by a star-studded ownership group (which includes Earnhardt and Justin Timberlake) that finally pushed the concept over the goal line (with notable support from Tennessee Titans, whose CEO and president attended the news conference to announce a street course that will use Nissan Stadium’s footprint as the anchor hub and paddock for media, teams and sponsor VIP hospitality).

After working for several years to bring the project to fruition, Music City GP CEO Matt Crews has joked that “at least three or four occasions, we have sat and toasted the death” of the inaugural event.

It underscores a general befuddlement of how Nashville went a decade without a major national series (Nashville Superspeedway’s most recent NASCAR race was the Xfinity Series in 2011).

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson will be racing in Nashville for the first time in more than 20 years but knows the area well, harkening back to dirt bike races as a child. He since has raced ASA and NASCAR at Nashville Fairgrounds and countless laps in Cup testing at Nashville Superspeedway. Johnson and his wife, Chandra, also have made jaunts from their Charlotte home to attend concerts in Nashville

IndyCar Jimmie Johnson Indy

“I’m like many that were really perplexed that the Superspeedway didn’t have the kind of success that we hoped that it would and that a Cup date didn’t happen before,” said Johnson, who will have a large entourage of friends from the area as well as many in Charlotte who have asked him for tickets. “From a facilities standpoint, from a fan base, from a town that is into motorsports, I’ve always scratched my head over it. I’m glad to see things turning around. I’m glad to know that there’s a NASCAR Cup event and now an IndyCar event in town. I feel like it’s a strong market for racing and a lot of people in the area -- there’s nothing better than music and cars. I think the two things really go together well.

“It’s been interesting how things kind of faded for a little while, and now we’re back in a big way with the two biggest series competing relatively close to one another in a stretch of time. I’m very happy for it. I think the market really supports all forms of motorsports.”

Grand marshal Dario Franchitti also sensed the fervent backing of motorsports while living in the region for several years in the 2000s, and he was overwhelmed by the growth when he returned earlier this year.

“From the moment you get to the airport, just the suburbs going out has become a much bigger city,” he said. “It’s got a big passion for cars. I think you tie those two together, it’s become a destination as well, all kinds of weekend things from all over the world. When you tie in the music side of things, which I think Scott Borchetta (the CEO of title sponsor Big Machine Records and member of the race ownership group) is able to do better than anybody because he’s a racing nut, obviously he’s got massive horsepower in the music business, it’s just a win-win. I think it’s going to be a tremendous event.

“I used to go to Cars and Coffee events all the time out there. You could see the passion for all types of cars and types of racing. It’s nice to see that sort of untapped potential being realized.”

Despite Nashville’s deep roots in music and entertainment, Mayor John Cooper said it’s often overlooked that Tennessee has a strong automotive presence. Nissan and Bridgestone both have headquarters in Nashville.

“It’s really probably the biggest single employer in the state,” Cooper said of the auto industry. “It’s growing. We are a car capital. We don’t recognize that we’re a global car capital, but we are.

“So having a recognition of how important the industry is and how important the racing is, which is part of the industry, it’s completely natural for us to be here.”

This weekend’s emphasis, though, will be as much on highlighting the event’s carnival appeal as the cars.

While most weekend schedules list only on-track activity, the Music City Grand Prix is putting Brooks and Dunn, Vince Neil, Alan Jackson, Tim Dugger and Danielle Bradbery equal billing with IndyCar practices and support series (which will include Trans-Am cars and Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks Series).

A veteran of many street races from IndyCar and his Formula E career, Felix Rosenqvist prefers the racing being only one of many options for fans.

“I feel like we’re all lucky to be in this scenario to come to a completely new track that is like a proper event,” the Arrow McLaren SP driver said. “Not only at the track but outside the track, I think it’s going to be a great show.”

It’ll be an important one for teams trying to please corporate sponsors, too. Arrow McLaren SP president Taylor Kiel said the team’s sponsor activation for Nashville will be reminiscent of the Indy 500.

“It’s going to look like an Arrow McLaren SP home race,” Kiel said. “It’s a huge, marquee event for a lot of our partners. You’ll see a ton of Vuse and Arrow and Mission, it’s going to be impressive. I’m very excited about that for us personally and our team and partners.

“It’s going to be a fantastic event, but also for the fans and the IndyCar Series generally to be able to come to a city like Nashville that we all know is very much on the rise. It’s a very popular place. It’s young, it’s vibrant. It’s a mecca of a lot of things.”

No IndyCar entity can claim more of a home race than tire supplier Firestone Racing, whose parent company Bridgestone Americas has been based in Nashville since 1992. The Bridgestone Tower at the corner of Fourth and Demonbreun streets has been adorned with large banners promoting the Music City GP, and the 30-floor glass skyscraper will be one of many downtown offices with panoramic views of the race.

Bridgestone headquarters

Cara Adams, the director of race tire engineering and manufacturing at Bridgestone, told NBC Sports that the company’s plans for weekend hospitality events are in flux because of the COVID Delta variant, but it hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for the street race, whose layout mirrors one of her favorite jogging routes.

“This has been talked about for a while, and the group in place to pull it off now is really the right group to be in there and seems they’re doing a great job,” she said. “If you look at Bridgestone and Nashville, they’re inseparable. There’s so much excitement about the event from getting the people downtown and just the venues that Nashville as a city has.

“It’s a great town to have a race. I think this could be really a great venue like a Long Beach that we’ll hopefully see on the schedule for years to come.”

Long Beach has been a fixture since 1976. Given that recent IndyCar street car races in Houston, Baltimore and Sao Paulo, Brazil, had short runs, Nashville will have a long way to go to match its history (as well as Toronto, St. Petersburg and Detroit), but Cotman believes it “has the chance to be very successful.

“Based on the investor group and the promoter and the city, if it’s not successful, I’m not sure what street circuit ever can be again,” he said. “These guys know how to put on events.”